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'Glanceable media' and the always-on paradox

Why don't consumers use home displays like TVs, PCs, and tablets more often to follow information such as weather, sports and social-media updates? The NPD Group's Ross Rubin has some theories.

Glanceable media -- visual nibbles of information or entertainment that convey meaning without much intervention or interaction -- has rich precedence in the physical world. Signs, clocks, and framed photos can all be considered forms.

These days, Google (and several major Android licensees), as well as Microsoft, have provided ways to tap into this kind of media on the upper levels of their smartphone user interfaces. Since the release of the T-Mobile G1, Android has supported widgets that can live on its multipart home screens, a feature it has expanded to third-party developers.

Devices like the Pebble watch represent one way to consume glanceable media. But what about displays we already have around the house? Pebble Technology

And while many Android widgets tie back into apps, Microsoft has largely taken this approach by design with Live Tiles in Windows Phone.

Because they are almost always with us and almost always connected, smartphones have a great advantage when it comes to presenting such information at a glance.

But they do have at least one major disadvantage; they are usually stored in a pocket or handbag. Thus, we have to drag them out -- and often unlock them -- to be updated on our latest interests. This drawback has led companies ranging from startups such as WIMM Labs, Allert, and MetaWatch, to giants such as Motorola and Sony, to create smart watches as glanceable portals for content that is retrieved by the smartphone without having to retrieve the smartphone itself.

Indeed, the team behind the Allerta InPulse smart watch recently launched the most funded project ever on the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, raising more than $6 million for its iPhone-compatible, Pebble e-paper smart watch with the bulk of its campaign time ahead of it.

Around the home, though, we can access a range of displays that don't have to be retrieved -- televisions, PCs, tablets, and even inexpensive digital picture frames. All of these have the ability to display glanceable media. Despite Apple not bringing its Dashboard widget architecture to iOS, even the iPad can act as a passive digital picture frame when not in use.

Yet relatively few consumers use these displays for this purpose and, in some cases, few have interest in doing so. Despite the efforts of companies such as Chumby, only 4 percent of consumers are interested in viewing glanceable media on small screens such as digital picture frames around the home, according to the recent NPD Connected Intelligence report, Glanceable Media: Enabling Pervasive Ambient Content.

Research from the report found that these home displays exemplify the always-on paradox. So why don't we see these displays used more to inform us of weather updates, teams we follow, and social-media status updates? In theory, they should be among the most desirable displays on which to implement glanceable media.

In practice, though, these displays are not well-suited to the demands of glanceable media. They consume power when on, which means they can't stay far from an outlet for long, and they are bright enough to be distracting in a room, particularly in the evening.

As with many other technology adoption issues, technology improvements and cultural shifts will be driving factors. New display technologies such as color e-paper that can display images indefinitely while consuming minimal power should eventually allow digital picture frames to match the unobtrusiveness of their print-based predecessors. Even then, though, content owners and device companies will need to contend with consumers who want to take just a little break from being surrounded by media, even if only in their periphery.